“I’m pretty pleased with how things are going in our vineyards this year,” says Fresno County raisin grower Dennis Wilt. “The crop is looking excellent — I don’t know how it could be much better.”
His crop is from 142 acres of Thompson seedless vines, some a century old, and 30 acres of Zante currants in the family’s D&J Farms’ vineyards near Biola, Calif.
The early July condition of his crop is the result of favorable weather, little pressure from powdery mildew, and so far, no threats from insect pests, Wilt says. The winter featured a good number of chilling hours and March and April brought much-needed rain.
“Then, the weather turned nice, allowing for good growth after bud break,” he says. “Since then, we’ve had nice growing weather, with temperatures that have been warmer than usual, but not really hot.”
Sometimes, mites start showing up around July 4, but by the end the first week of July he hadn’t seen any, or for that matter, any mealybugs or leafhoppers. “Zantes are a host crop for leafhoppers,” Wilt says, “but so far this season, mine are clean.”
Veraison began a few days earlier than usual, and a good two weeks sooner than last year, when cool temperatures delayed development of the crop. In fact, his Zantes, which mature about 7 days to 10 days sooner than his Thompson seedless, had begun to color June 26.
Bunch counts are down about 15 percent to 20 percent from last year.
“We should have a nice average crop this year,” Wilt says. “If the weather continues favorable through harvest, the quality of the raisins this year should be unbelievable.”
He’ll take quality and the higher premium prices that go with it over quantity every time. With fewer trays to pick, dry and truck to the processor, he reasons, harvesting fewer grapes of better quality is more profitable than bringing in more tonnage at a lower quality.
Any quality premium he gets this year will help pay for pumping water to flood irrigate his vineyards after harvest. This year, due to the reduced snowpack in the mountains, deliveries of surface water from his irrigation district will stop at the end of July. Last year, he got his last district water Nov. 3.
“Usually, we cut water for our vineyards by the end of July or first part of August anyway” he says. “But, we like to run water again mid- to late October to get some moisture back into the soil. This year, we’ll have to turn on the pumps.”
Assuming weather and development of his crop stay on track, Wilt may be able to start picking grapes this year by the first of September, or even toward the end of August. That’s when he expects them to reach between 21° and 23° Brix.
“Last year we waited until Sept. 10 for sugar — and it never came,” he says.
Most of Wilt’s grapes are hand-picked and tray-dried, but he also dries 50 acres of Thompson seedless on the vine. They replaced table grape vines, which had been growing on a gable trellis system. Wilt kept that system when he converted the field raisins.
“This will be the fifth year for them,” he says. “The open-type canopy of this system spreads out the crop and we get good air movement for the grapes to dry out.”
About 10 years ago, he began harvesting another 50 acres with machines. He rotates machine harvesting every three or four years among different fields. This allows time for vines planted as replacements for those damaged by the harvester to start bearing fruit.